Growing up in a Christian home, I never questioned the validity of Substitutionary Atonement.1 I was raised to believe that humans were sinful and God was Holy. Because of sin, God could not be in right relationship with creation. As a solution, Jesus played the role of mediator between humanity and God. Jesus served as a perfect sacrifice for human sin. His blood covers our iniquities, and because of his death, humans can be forgiven.
As a young adult, this view made sense to me. I knew I was a sinner in need of forgiveness. It seemed reasonable that God would use Jesus as a sacrifice to atone for human sin. But over time, I began to question the logical and moral merits of such a view. I can still remember the first time I began to question this interpretation of the cross. I was in a Good Friday service surrounded by Christians celebrating the crucifixion of Jesus. Far from the solemn tone of a Catholic mass or tenebrae service, this worship experience was filled with upbeat music, raised hands, and prayers of thanksgiving. At this moment, I began to ask several questions. Was Jesus’ humiliation and torture really something to celebrate? Shouldn’t we be mourning the death of Jesus instead? Wasn’t the crucifixion of Jesus an example of selfishness and sin by those responsible for his death? If Jesus’ execution was an example of sin, then how could God will it?
These questions still haunt me. They’ve caused me to reevaluate the meaning and significance of the cross and of Christian atonement. They’ve led me to study and discuss these issues with Christians I trust and respect. In what follows, I will attempt to outline some of my thoughts on Christian Atonement. I don’t claim to have all the answers. What you will read below is nothing more than the theological journey I’ve taken over the past few years. The issues covered are sufficiently complex. Because of this, I hope the Christian church can learn to embrace those who accept substitutionary atonement as well as those who interpret the cross differently.
To begin, I will briefly sketch a generic version of Substitutionary Atonement.2 Of key importance are the nature of God, the cause of humanity’s separation from God, and the role of the cross.
God created the world and humanity in a state of perfection (Garden of Eden).
God was in right relationship with creation.
Adam and Eve freely and willfully disobeyed God. As a result, sin entered the world.
Because of the original sin, the world is fallen. Every descendent of the original couple will now inherit a sinful nature.
God is a Holy God. God cannot relate to sin. Because of humanity’s sinful nature, God is no longer in right relationship with humanity.
God is just. Thus, sin must be punished.
God is also love. Therefore, God does not want to punish humanity, but desires right relationship instead.
In order to punish humanity’s sin, God sends Jesus to die as a sacrifice for sin once and for all. Jesus takes our place on the cross. In this way, Jesus functions as a substitute for humanity.
Now that sin has been punished, humanity can be forgiven. The chasm between humanity and God has been bridged. We can now be in right relationship with God (salvation).
Some Potential Problems
From my perspective, Substitutionary Atonement creates two potential problems for Christian theology. It seems that if substitutionary atonement is true, then God is either severely limited in power or unnecessarily cruel. If the only way God can forgive or reconcile is through blood and sacrifice, then God’s power is limited. Why is sacrifice the only way God can forgive? If God is all powerful, then there should be a number of ways to reestablish right relationship with humanity. If God can’t forgive without blood and sacrifice, then God is limited in power.
On the other hand, if God can forgive humanity in many ways and simply chooses to use blood as God’s means of forgiveness, then God seems unnecessarily cruel. Why would God will the torture, humiliation, and death of his son, if there were other ways to redeem humanity? One could even argue, as Gregory Love does in his book Love, Violence, and the Cross,3 that substitutionary atonement makes God look like an abusive father. This raises an important question. Does substitutionary atonement give an accurate portrayal of the God of Scripture, and the God revealed in the person of Jesus Christ? I would argue that it does not. And such a view appears to box God into a corner. If God can’t forgive without blood, then God is severely limited in power. On the other hand, if God can forgive in many ways, then Jesus’ death on the cross looks unnecessarily cruel.
Furthermore, I would argue that Jesus’ crucifixion was the result of human sin. How else should we label the execution of an innocent man? This is problematic because substitutionary atonement argues that God willed the death of Jesus as part of a divine plan to reconcile humanity and the world. If the crucifixion of Jesus was sinful and God willed this death, then God willed sin. This contradicts a God whose nature is holy, loving, and just.
My second critique comes from the world of science. In my estimation, substitutionary atonement does not fit well with the theory of evolution. Similar to my experience with substitutionary atonement, I didn’t start questioning the accuracy of a literal six-day creation until I was a young adult. I remember being deeply troubled by the divergent creation stories found in Genesis 1 and 2. In chapter 1 the first humans are created after the sun, moon, stars, earth, animals, and vegetation; but in chapter 2 Adam is created before vegetation. Which order of creation is true? Furthermore, did the word “day” really refer to a literal 24-hour time period? How could there be a day before the sun was created? More troubling questions arose concerning Cain and Abel. After Cain kills Abel he travels to the land of Nod, but where on earth did all the people in Nod come from? Questions like these led me away from a literal historical interpretation of the early Genesis narratives.
However, if macroevolution is true and humans are the result of billions of years of natural selection, then several important theological questions emerge. First, what happens to the doctrine of the Fall of humanity in light of evolution? If evolution is true, then the universe is very old, humans evolved from primates, and the historical accuracy (but not the truth) of the Genesis narratives is called into question. Because of this, many who support a version of theistic evolution argue for a metaphorical or allegorical interpretation of Genesis 1-3.4 In this view, the Fall is not a historical event. But now the questions really start to mount. Substitutionary atonement argues that Jesus was crucified in order to restore humanity’s relationship with God. Sin created a divide between God and creation. Jesus’ death was a necessary sacrifice to bridge this gap. However, if denying the historical Fall calls into question the doctrine of original sin, then it also calls into question the role of the cross of Christ within substitutionary atonement. If Jesus didn’t die in order to overcome humanity’s original sin, then why did Jesus die? What is Jesus, the second Adam, attempting to restore with the cross, if not the sin of the first Adam? Substitutionary atonement sees original sin as a major reason for Christ’s death. But macroevolution calls the Fall and the doctrine of original sin into question. Thus, evolution poses a significant challenge to substitutionary atonement.
These critiques levied against the substitution view are not intended to be the final word on the atonement. They merely represent the major reasons for my own transition away from substitutionary atonement. In what follows, I intend to sketch an alternative view of the cross; one that preserves God’s goodness and God’s justice. A view that identifies the crucifixion of Jesus as sinful, and thus, in opposition to the will of God. A theory more compatible with the best evolutionary science.
Introduction to an Alternative View of the Cross
In the previous sections, I have focused on several critiques aimed at substitutionary atonement. To review briefly, substitutionary atonement argues that humans are sinful and God is Holy. Because of sin, God cannot be in right relationship with humanity or creation. As a solution, Jesus plays the role of mediator between humanity and God. Jesus becomes the perfect sacrifice for human sin. His blood covers our iniquities and because of his death, humans can be forgiven.
The focal point of the substitutionary view is the cross of Christ. We are forgiven and saved through Jesus’ blood and sacrifice. In what follows, I will argue that emphasizing Jesus’ death is the wrong way to approach the atonement. Instead, I suggest that any discussion concerning Christian atonement would be better served focusing on the incarnation.
Why the incarnation? What is the reason for the incarnation? Why does God choose to take on flesh and bone and live with the people of Palestine and Galilee? What is the significance of God choosing to become human? The substitutionary view often argues that the primary reason for the incarnation is the cross. That is, God becomes human in the person of Jesus of Nazareth with the sole purpose of dying for humanity’s sin. I argue that this view of the incarnation is somewhat limited. Jesus doesn’t become human to die. Jesus takes on flesh and bone to show us how to really live, how to be fully human. In what follows, I will focus on two reasons for the incarnation and subsequent atonement: Revelation and Inspiration. It is important to note that these do not represent an exhaustive list. There is much more to the incarnation and atonement than can be written here. But I do believe that revelation and inspiration get to the heart of the Gospel message of hope, transformation, and salvation.
God is revealed in many ways. Scripture, the sacraments, creation, and human love represent some of the most common things associated with God’s revelation. But nothing reveals the nature and character of God more fully or more clearly than the person of Jesus Christ. In the Gospel of John, Philip says to Jesus, “Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us.” Jesus answered: “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Don’t you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me? The words I say to you I do not speak on my own authority. Rather, it is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work. Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; or at least believe on the evidence of the works themselves.”(John 14:8-11) Anyone who has seen Jesus has also seen God. How wonderful! If we want to know what God is like, all we need to do is look at the person of Jesus. In this way, the incarnation gives humanity its clearest glimpse of the Divine. Now, when there are disputes about God’s character, God’s nature, or God’s love, we can look to Jesus to provide clarity.
What is more, Jesus also reveals the true nature of humanity. That is, Christ shows us what it means to be fully human. Scripture suggests that in the end, God’s kingdom will be fully established on earth as it is in heaven. Christ’s birth represents the inauguration of this kingdom. The incarnation begins God’s reign on earth that will come to final fruition when Christ returns. As Christians, we are called to live as faithful citizens of God’s kingdom in a world that opposes it. Thus, we live in anticipation of the day when Christ returns and God’s kingdom is established in full. In the meantime, Jesus shows us what kingdom living really looks like. Unfortunately, this kind of kingdom living often creates enemies of those who live according to the logic of the world. In many respects, this is why Jesus finds himself hanging on the cross.
In the life of Jesus, we see the way of our salvation. Earlier in John, Jesus responds to Thomas saying, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you really know me, you will know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him.” (John 4:6-7) God sees humanity lost, isolated, and desperate. But God does not leave humanity to languish in sin and sorrow. Instead, God chooses to become human, to become mortal, to become flesh and bone. God chooses to be present to humanity in a new and powerful way, a way that requires God to become vulnerable, broken, and isolated. But this love, this presence, this compassion is the way of Christ. It can be seen throughout Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.
Jesus shows us the way, but revelation is not enough. We are also called to imitate Christ, to follow his way of living and loving, to participate in the abundant life. Believing and following the way of Christ is the heart of atonement. But no one can imitate Christ on one’s own. Hard work and willpower are not enough. Fortunately, through God’s grace and the power of the Holy Spirit we are inspired and equipped to actually live the way of Christ. This is the method and the means of our salvation. In this way, salvation is not something that happens when I die. Salvation is something I participate in today, right now. As I pursue the way of Christ, I am saved from the selfish, lazy, prideful person I was without Christ. And this isn’t done alone. We do this in community as the church. The more the church imitates Christ, the more we image God to the world. In this way, the church participates in God’s redemptive work that will only come to fruition when Christ returns. But to choose the way of Christ is to choose the way of love, service, and suffering. The same love that took Christ to the cross should lead us to work and to sacrifice for the redemption and salvation of the world.
How does the view I’ve sketched differ from substitutionary atonement? First, the incarnation is not primarily about the cross. God does not send Jesus to die. God does not require Jesus’ death in order to forgive humanity’s sin. As a result, God is not motivated by retribution or righteous anger. Instead, the incarnation is motivated by love. God wanted humanity to know him in a new and robust way. God wanted to be present to humanity in the midst of its sin and isolation. God desires right relationship. As a demonstration of God’s immense love and compassion, God takes on flesh and bone. He becomes a vulnerable child relying on humans for his every need. He learns what it is to hunger and thirst. He experiences torture, humiliation, and isolation on the cross. In the end, Jesus experiences death. And in so doing, Christ connects to humanity in a new and powerful way. His compassion both shows us the way of our salvation (revelation) and inspires us to follow after him.
I argue that God did not will the cross. An angry crowd, a prideful group of the religious elite, and a cowardly Roman prefect, put a perfectly innocent man to death. They willed the cross. And I believe this act is an example of sin. But God is holy, loving, and just. Thus, God cannot will or condone sin. Instead, I argue that the incarnation is about life, revelation, and inspiration—not death. I believe that God knew Jesus would be killed. That’s what happens when the kingdom of God collides with the kingdom of this world. But Christ’s death was not part of God’s divine plan. It was the tragic result of human sin. But as horrific as the cross was, God’s love extends beyond and redeems it. In spite of the anger, hatred, and violence displayed during the crucifixion, Jesus still calls out for God to forgive the crowd. “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34) God’s love is greater than human sin. And the redemption promised in the coming Kingdom of God is revealed most clearly in the resurrection that occurs three days later. What sin and violence destroyed, God’s love redeemed. This is a vision of the eschaton; it is a vision of our atonement. God promises to absorb violence and death and replace it with reconciliation, forgiveness, and love. This revelation, this vision, is the reason for the incarnation. It is the power behind the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. And it is the method and the means of our atonement and ultimate salvation.
This view of the atonement is important for several reasons. First, it doesn’t require, though would be compatible with, a historical Adam and Eve and a traditional view of original sin. The substitutionary view argues that Jesus’ death redeems the sin committed by Adam and Eve in the garden. To adopt this view, one must read Genesis 1-3 more literally. At times, this kind of biblical hermeneutic may run counter to evolutionary theory. The view sketched above does not require a historical Adam and Eve or a traditional concept of original sin, making it more compatible with evolution. Additionally, my view of atonement argues that Christ’s death was not part of God’s plan. This helps preserve God’s power (God can forgive in many ways, he doesn’t require blood) and God’s goodness (God doesn’t will the cross).
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Tim Keller on Original Sin, Atonement, and Evolution
This post is part of a series of perspectives on how to understand the atoning work of Christ in light of evolutionary science.